Portrait of a Cosplayer on the Front Lines

Francis Gualta finds cosplay is his best method for coping with the stress of Covid-19.
Frank Gualta poses in his PPE (center) surrounded by many of his cosplay looks.
Frank Gualta poses in his PPE (center) surrounded by many of his cosplay looks.
Photo: All photos Frank Gualta
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Two months ago, as the novel coronavirus pandemic flared, nurse Francis Gualta was called to help in England’s intensive care units. Except he’d never operated a ventilator before. He’d never had to wear full personal protective equipment. Now, after weeks of helping patients the best he can, and seeing some die, Gualta said cosplay is his best method for coping.

“I keep myself busy with my cosplay,” Gualta told io9 over video call. “That’s usually what diverts my attention. Because if I don’t do that, [I think about] all the things about work and it’s going to be stressful again. It’s a very depressing atmosphere when you go inside that intensive care unit.”

Gualta, 34, attended his first comic convention in 2013. He immediately fell in love with the people and con culture, as well as cosplay, and set out to eventually wear his own as “Francsterling.” He debuted his first costume, a gender-bent Harley Quinn from the Suicide Squad film, in 2016. Since then, he’s created several looks in cosplay and “crossplay,” or dressing up as characters of a different gender identity. Unlike some in the community who cosplay professionally, Gualta only does this for a hobby and is self-taught in makeup and costume design, using shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race as inspiration. He’s taken on personas like Venom, Poison Ivy, and Nebula and told me he loves using cosplay as a way to explore the theme of transformation. It’s his version of a Mystique/Wolverine hybrid that’s kind of the apex of his cosplay goals.

“When I cosplayed Mystique—half-Mystique, half Wolverine—my thinking was, ‘Well, on the Wolverine side it was very muscular and masculine, and on the other side Mystique is so feminine and so womanly. Almost a woman’s figure.’ She’s my main inspiration of my cosplay, being able to just shapeshift,” he said. “It’s like my main idea, being a shapeshifter in cosplay.”

Gualta was planning on attending about five comic cons this year, preparing a series of looks for the events—including a Carnage cosplay for the Venom sequel Let There Be Carnage, as well as a new Mulan costume inspired by the live-action remake (both films have been delayed because of the pandemic).

In March, the coronavirus pandemic began to spread across the globe (now there have been over 5.5 million cases and about 350,000 deaths so far). Gualta, like many, initially thought there was little to worry about. It may have been surging in nearby Italy, but that didn’t mean it was going to come to them. But it hit and it hit hard. England has had over 260,000 cases and 37,000 deaths; at its peak, the country had over 6,000 reported cases in a single day. On Twitter, Gualta has been critical of the United Kingdom’s response, under the leadership of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, for how it handled the pandemic. After all, he has first-hand experience in how bad things have gotten.

Left: Gualta’s take on Mystique and Wolverine. Right: Gualta’s kabuki-inspired Poison Ivy.
Left: Gualta’s take on Mystique and Wolverine. Right: Gualta’s kabuki-inspired Poison Ivy.

Gualta has been working as a nurse for the past five years, specializing in patients over 75 years old. Hailing from the Philippines, he told us he got into the field because it was the easiest way to move abroad—it wasn’t his first choice of career but he wouldn’t change a thing now. He loves being a day surgeon nurse, mainly because of how he gets to help people and become part of their lives.

“There are some people that would normally not ask for help—even with their family or relatives—to help them with their personal care. But as a nurse, you tend to have a chance to help them,” he said.

Since being assigned to intensive care after the pandemic started, Gualta’s job looks very different now. He currently works in the Intensive Treatment Unit, or ITU, at Basildon and Thurrock University Hospitals three days a week for 12-hour shifts. He and his coworkers were thrown into the job very quickly because the number of patients being admitted was already starting to escalate. The nurses were given brief training on how to operate ventilators and asked to serve as support staff for ITU professionals already stationed there. However, because of persistent staff shortages, they usually end up doing even more. All of them are weaving a complex dance none of them were prepared for, trying to balancing their desire to help with the fear that something could go wrong.

“You are anxious about being not so knowledgeable about the place, and at the same time you are conscious about your own safety. What if I get the virus? You know, you’ve heard a lot of things about nurses or medical staff being infected. So you have a lot of anxiety, mixed emotions. At the same time, you want to help,” he said.

Gualta said he currently takes care of one ventilator-using patient at a time, keeping an eye on their vitals while being supervised by an ITU nurse. Normally Intensive Treatment will have about 14 beds, but it’s been expanded to meet demand—on average, there have been 18 to 22 patients on the floor at any given time. These are the people who have been hit the hardest by covid-19 and are experiencing symptoms like organ failure, persistent fever, and severe breathing problems. He said his hospital hasn’t released official statistics of recovery rates for ITU patients but mentioned it’s probably in line with the national average, which has been about half. It’s been a lot for him to take—not only because it would be hard for anyone, but also because it wasn’t something he ever thought he would have to do.

“When we’re in day surgery, people don’t die when they go in there. After their procedure, they go home. Being in the ITU, it’s a very different environment. They are very ill. We can’t even speak to them, we can’t even chat with the patient, because they are in a coma,” he told me, fighting back tears. “You don’t even have a chance to reassure them. You can always talk to them when they’re in a coma, but you don’t know if they’re hearing you or understanding you.”

Even though it’s been over two months, Gualta thinks people still don’t understand the severity of the pandemic. It’s partially because of the British government’s response—he said the UK is still “behind,” despite all the warnings from other countries—but also because some folks aren’t following what little guidance they’re getting. Though there have been attempts to get things on track. Recently, the government released a 50-page plan detailing a gradual lift of the nation’s lockdown, which includes recommendations for face masks and social distancing. But Gualta said people are flaunting those guidelines for things like sunbathing, shopping, and barbecues.

“I wish that people would understand how serious this situation is,” he said. “There are still some people who think it’s just a flu, it’s not that bad. But you see people dying in the Intensive Care Unit. Once a patient goes into [the] Intensive Care Unit, they are really in a bad situation. You know that they are very ill. It’s either they will come out alive or they will not.”

Gualta dressed as Nebula for a comic con.
Gualta dressed as Nebula for a comic con.

One of the things that Gualta said has been helpful to him are the weekly clapping sessions happening all around the country at 8 p.m. (we have similar events in parts of the United States). He said it fills him with pride to hear his neighbors and friends thanking him for the hard and unprecedented work he’s had to do—though he hopes people (and Parliament) are doing more than just clapping for essential workers like himself.

“It feels great, really, because a lot of times you don’t feel appreciated. Even before the current situation, medical professionals do great things but it doesn’t seem to be appreciated enough. Only when this happened and then people realized, ‘Oh, nurses are heroes, doctors are heroes,’ and then they start clapping. You feel special and you feel lifted, in spite of all the stresses that you do at work,” he said. “But on the opposite side, my thought is hopefully the government will not just think ‘Oh, we are clapping them, we call them heroes’ and think that’s enough. There are so many nurses and medical professional professionals [dying] because of this covid, and they seem to be just forgotten.”

Gualta has also been getting support from the cosplay community, which he said has been a welcome relief during this time. He’s participated in at least one of the cosplay video challenges that have been going around, and he’s been staying in touch with folks he’s met through cosplay—even if he doesn’t normally hang out with them outside of cons. He noted how the first convention he attends after all of this is over will likely be “the best thing ever.”

Even though it might be months or years before that happens, Gualta is going to keep working on his cosplay and growing his craft. It’s not just getting him through this difficult time, it’s also helped shape who he is. “Cosplay is an art, but within that there’s a lot more of art. I like the photography, I like to create and paint stuff. I enjoy the transformation. I started to learn more makeup. But most of all, it’s just an expression of myself. I’m usually shy, timid, introverted. But when I’m at cons, I become more extroverted,” Gualta said.

He then pointed to the cosplay wig he was wearing during our interview: “This right now helped me to be able to face you. I haven’t done anything like this before. If I face you just my normal self, I wouldn’t be able to talk probably. In conventions, when I’m my character, I’m the most sociable person. I become the most sociable person, I can talk to anyone.”

At first, Gualta said he was having trouble feeling motivated and had put his projects in the closet. But now, he’s pulled them back out and is spending his free time working on new cosplay because it helps keep him distracted from everything else going on. “I’m not working today, but even if I’m at home I’m thinking about what’s going to happen at work. It makes me anxious. I almost have a sort of panic attack just every time,” Gualta said. “What I do is just focus on my cosplay.”

You can check out Gualta’s cosplay on Instagram and Twitter. And the next time you see the clock hit 8 p.m., maybe share a clap for him—and all the folks—on the front lines of the pandemic.

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